Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2004
London, Tate Britain; Paris, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris; and, Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, Peter Doig, 2008-09, p. 93, illustrated in colour
Berlin, Contemporary Fine Arts, Peter Doig: Not for Sale, 2009
Bonn, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Ferne Nähe: 'Natur' in der Kunst der Gegenwart, 2009, p. 71, illustrated in colour
Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum, Windflower: Perceptions of Nature, 2011, p. 79, illustrated in colour
Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery; and, Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts, Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, 2013-14, p. 121, illustrated in colour
Catherine Lampert and Richard Shiff, Peter Doig, New York 2011, p. 265, illustrated in colour
As well as another large-scale version of this work – Pelican (Stag) – there are also at least five smaller iterations of the motif on paper. One of these – Pelican Man – resides in the permanent collection at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Indeed, so pleased was Doig with the artistic efficacy of this subject matter, that he included it in miniature, hanging within another of his monumental paintings: Metropolitain (House of Pictures) which now resides in the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.
Pelican is a wonderful example not only of the dreamlike mood associated with Doig at his best, but also of the artist’s working technique. It is based on an incident Doig saw while on a boat trip with Chris Ofili during their first trip to Trinidad in 2000: “we saw that guy in the sea, bobbing around with a pelican. He was bobbing in the swell, quite far out, and clearly wasn’t swimming. At first I thought he was rescuing the pelican, that it had broken its wing. Then it became clear that he was trying to drown it. And then he came onto the beach and as he walked around the shore you could see that he was swinging the pelican around by its neck. The way that the pelican was looping and looping and looping, he was obviously wringing its neck” (Peter Doig quoted in: Peter Doig and Chris Ofili, ‘Peter Doig & Chris Ofili: Artists in Conversation’, BOMB, Fall 2007, online resource). To witness this illicit act was exciting but voyeuristic. It was a moment of bizarre discord, almost shock, a perfect subject for Doig’s preclusive narrative.
However, any attempts to record the event from memory or imagination were impossible – they appeared too comical, too vague, and too absurd. The moment sunk into Doig’s creative consciousness and only resurfaced when he happened upon a set of postcards in a London junkshop. The postcards were from Ooty, a lakeside village in the Tamil Nadu province of southern India. One of them, showing a cluster of boathouses, formed the source material for Music of the Future, one of the very first paintings that Doig created in Trinidad. Another, showing a man dragging fishing nets up the beach, instantly reminded him of that episode he had witnessed with the man and the Pelican and inspired him to paint. The photograph was captured in an entirely different time and place, and found thousands of miles away, but it formed a perfect visual armature upon which Doig could drape and project the surreal reality of his memory.
This jarring juxtaposition of source material was not new to Doig’s oeuvre. In Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, the famous work that now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, Doig matched a photo of himself and a friend in comic costumes from the Royal Opera House, with a postcard of a German dam. Even as early as 1991 Doig had paired a photograph found in National Geographic with the memory of the boy at his school who sold acid, in order to make The Young Bean Farmer. This seditious technique has long been one of his favourite tools for dismantling a narrative, for splicing an elusive memory into his art, and for imbuing his works with a dreamlike mood of déjà vu.
When Doig and Ofili saw the man killing the Pelican, they were in the midst of a Trinidadian artist’s residency. Both were so enamoured by the island that they quickly returned to live there permanently, Doig in 2002, Ofili in 2004. The move heralded the dawn of a new era in Doig’s artistry. Up to this point, his life had been perennially peripatetic; bouncing between London, Canada, New York and the tropics, and this nomadic nature had been reflected in his work. His studio bore witness to the painted majesty of the North American wilderness, the bright openness of the Alps, the modernist architecture of Northern France, and the muffled heat of Puerto Rico. However, after arriving in Trinidad, Doig settled, and for the first time in his life, began to paint subjects from his immediate surroundings. Having lived there between the ages of two and seven, the island was a place already filled with that sense of vague nostalgia that laces his work: “I remembered the architecture. I could remember smells. I could remember roads and routes. It’s a potent place visually, just the experience of it, even at a young age, and I realised I had always felt very fond of this place, very connected to it even though I hadn’t been back in thirty-three years” (Peter Doig quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, 2013, p. 158). Thus, just as the man killing the pelican was the perfect subject, Trinidad was the perfect place; a readymade example of the oneiric mood that he had worked so hard to evoke elsewhere.
In this respect, there is a tempting comparison to be made between Doig and the post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, who left Paris for Tahiti in 1891. Both of these European artists (although he grew up mainly in Canada, Doig was born in Scotland) left their respective metropolises of the art world to seek rejuvenation at the relatively mature age of 43. Upon arrival, both experienced a short period of difficulty, thrown by the brightness and intensity of light, before settling into the interpretation of newfound subject matter. As Doig has recounted: “Colour in this part of the world is very intense, and frequently you see incredible combinations. These clashing colours start making sense in the light… the environment must be affecting me” (Peter Doig speaking with Kitty Scott in: Adrian Searle, Kitty Scott, Catherine Grenier, Eds., Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 24). Seemingly, pertinent parallels can be drawn between Pelican and Gauguin’s Matamoe: both works are clear responses to the intensity of light, and both are completed with bright passages of vivid colour. Furthermore, both feature mysterious men engaged in unknown action, and both prominently exhibit birds that are not indigenous to Europe.
However, Doig himself baulks at the comparison. Where Gauguin observed his tropical island through the prism of colonialism, offering up exotic scenes to the rapacious eye of occidental empires, Doig is overtly conscious of his position as a foreigner in a small society: “If you look at my paintings from that period, I think you can see they are very much questioning why I’m there: what am I looking at, what right do I have to look?... If I was Trinidadian, I would latch more on to the myths and romanticise the place more. I don’t think it’s my place to do that” (Peter Doig quoted in: Stuart Jeffries, ‘Peter Doig: The Outsider comes home, The Guardian, 5 September 2012, online resource).
Pelican exemplifies this cautious approach. Doig’s awareness of gaze is palpable; the canvas is filled with a mood of uncomfortable invasive voyeurism and the protagonist glares back – challenging, admonishing, and daring us to enquire further. In Pelican, we are presented not with a pseudo-touristic proto-postcard elucidating an idyll of tropical bliss, but rather with a voyeuristic glimpse of a wider unknown narrative that exists in a realm beyond our remit. This flickering image of a man, hovering in reflection above an implied body of water, appears as an isolated still from a film to which we have no access. It is enchanting and mesmerising, but entirely un-romanticised.
Even if Gauguin is too facile a comparison, post-Impressionist precedent is not irrelevant to the interpretation of Pelican; two pictures by Henri Matisse are more fitting. Matisse began to paint in the woods at Trivaux in 1917, when the purchase of a motorcar allowed him to take all his equipment into the wilderness. Doig saw the resultant works in an exhibition at the Tate Gallery and found them extremely powerful: Shaft of Sunlight in the Woods at Trivaux is often linked with Pelican (Stag), and L’Etang de Trivaux appears closely linked with Pelican. There are obvious differences between these two pictures in style and paint quality: where Matisse offers matte passages of swooping modulation – grey blending with green blending with brown – Doig is diaphanous. His paint is applied in bleeding clouds of thin shimmering colour, lifted by glints of pure flat white. However, they both present compositions punctuated by the linear presence of tall thin trees, they both deploy a deliberately vague horizon-line, and they both feature reflective apparitions in ghostly waters below. Furthermore, Matisse’s work seems to exemplify that quality that Doig has sought throughout his career: “I think painting should evolve itself into a type of abstraction, to slowly dissipate into something else” (Peter Doig quoted in: BOMB, op. cit., online resource).
This heightened tension between figurative subject matter and abstract style is a central tenet of Doig’s oeuvre. There is a clear narrative aspect to the work, and its forms are clearly based around figurative representation. However, when viewed from a wider formalist perspective, it appears far more compositionally concerned with abstract concepts of chromatic contrast. Excluding the chaste delineations of central details, the canvas is covered by four rectangular passages of colour presented in vertical sequence: thin blue, sandy brown, verdant green, and intense cyan. In this respect, and in the bleeding borders and conscious lack of muddying modulation, the work is redolent of the Abstract Expressionists; Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman were more unabashed in their presentation of fields of colour, but Doig adopts their principles nonetheless. This backdrop is not one of mimetic illusory realism – the thick luscious green makes no pretence of dividing into individual trees; it should be viewed almost as a stage-set, a curtain of abstract brilliance, drawn into the dreamscape where Doig’s art dwells.
Reflection is one of the most relied upon artistic devices in Doig’s painterly arsenal, deployed to great effect in masterpieces such as Blotter, 1993 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), Echo Lake, 1998 (Tate, London), and 100 Years Ago, 2000 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). The present work is an exceptional example of this technique, with a likeness of the protagonist seeming to glow out of the waters beneath him in golden brilliance. This mirroring over a vague horizon-line furthers the sense of disorientation that is inherent to this work; in the vividness of reflection contrasting with the bleeding wash of waters around it, we might even call to mind Doig’s teenage experience of LSD. However, the device is better viewed in metaphorical terms. In examining the tension between image and reflection – between reality and illusion – Doig compels his viewer to question the reality of the work at hand; we are left wondering the state of the scene he presents, whether it exists or ever existed in reality, or in dreams, or only in the deep vestiges of memory.
Doig is an artist of atmosphere. Through a conflation of source material and personal experience, an awareness of his foreigner’s gaze, a reference to post-Impressionist precedent, and a reliance on abstract compositional principles, he has, in the present work, created a painting that is entirely compelling in its elusive otherworldliness. As elegant in execution as it is impressive in interpretation, Pelican is paradigmatic of the oeuvre of this modern master.
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